Sunday, August 22, 2010

People of the Book: Scripture as Missional Narrative

Part 4 of Reformed Theology and the Missional Church.  This is a handout for the participants, for the sake of discussion.  Certainly much to be explored and critiqued, but nonetheless...[1]

Stories are everywhere. We love stories. Stories speak to our innermost self, some obviously better than others. Stories can inspire and shape our dreams. Stories can sometimes leave us in fear and cause us to question the safety and security of our environment. Some stories intrigue us through mystery and suspense. Other stories become our form of escape from the mess of our own lives. Then there are those stories that are small tales and teach us little snippets of truth. Other stories may serve as a metanarrative, or large and overarching story that frames our understanding and interpretation of the world and life experiences. We like stories and we tell and listen to them with regularity.

Movies tell stories. Television tells stories. Music tells a story. Theater tells a story. So does poetry.There are endless stories in local and global news, stories which attempt to educate society about current events, both positive and negative. Yet there are still more variations of storytelling.

U2 singer and activist Bono calls stained glass “the first cinemas.” The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was turned into a giant canvas for storytelling when Michelangelo, hired by Pope Julius II in 1508, used his ingenuity to illustrate segments of nine biblical stories from the book of Genesis.

The history of storytelling is difficult to pin to any particular date. The Lascaux cave paintings, said to have been discovered in southwestern France by four teenagers in September of 1940, are believed to be as old as 16,000 years. Each picture provoking the imagination to guess what story was being told.

Stories are also told by way of oral tradition, passing narratives down from generation to generation by word-of-mouth. Each time the story may be told in a new and fresh way. The art of storytelling has transcended time and medium. There is power in story. Stories illustrate life and experience in a way that sparks the imagination and tugs on our creative energies.

The Bible is also an example of story or narrative. That is, the Bible is a large and beautiful story with the plot of God putting the world to rights and making all things new through Jesus. It is a story that incorporates poetry, history, narrative, parables, prophecy, song, and reflections on things to come. Even more, in order to get the fullest picture of what actually happens in the person of Jesus, we have to read and engage the whole story, both what happened before (Old Testament and the history of Israel) and what has continued to happen after (climaxing in the incarnation of Jesus the Messiah and attested to in the New Testament). In other words, how do we read Scripture? We read Scripture as a real story of the triune God’s past, present, and on-going activity in the world that centers on the life, death, and resurrection of the person of Jesus who has sent us the Holy Spirit.

It is important to be reminded that just because we say the Bible is a story does not mean we are talking about something fictional. Stories can be fictional or non-fictional. Story is just a way of breaking down and viewing a series of events with some semblance of organization that breathes fresh meanings and understandings of the world. We love stories and we can relate to stories. Stories are everywhere; and God has written a story, through real and human authors, that is to and for us and the whole world. Some have even described Scripture as a vast and loosely structured non-fictional novel. [2]

Another narratival medium is the theater. A theatrical performance is usually broken down into scenes and acts. One of my favorite writers, N.T. Wright, describes the biblical story as a six-act Shakespearean play. Wright says that we as followers of Jesus, readers of Scripture, and members of the Church are living in the middle of the fifth act. He even takes it a step farther and says we live as though members of a six-act Shakespearean play whose latter portions of Act V and the whole of Act VI have been left undiscovered. But the play is too brilliant not to be performed. So, actors and actresses carefully read the first four and portions of the fifth act, reflect on other Shakespearean plays, and then faithfully improvise the ending in light of their discoveries as a team of actors. [3]

This is us who we are: people of the book living into a missional narrative. We are captivated and transformed by the fourth and decisive act of Jesus, i.e. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which has invited us to move into the fifth act of participation in his work of putting the world to rights and making all things new. We are not sure of the ending, but we carefully read and discuss the story, Old and New Testaments, as we have it, in community, and then live into it as best we can, faithfully improvising as a community of Jesus followers and actors within the gospel story. The biblical story is not a monologue; instead, it is a missional and communal narrative that invites all of us to play our role as the ending, rather, the new beginning, unfolds all around us.

[1] I have adapted this from a resource used in our youth confirmation program, CREDO (
[2] “Barth’s reading of Scripture as ‘one vast, loosely structured non-fictional novel’” (D.H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology, p. 48, also in Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ, xxiv).
[3] N.T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative.” . Brian Walsh also discusses this in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be. p. 182.

Other Helpful Citations Pertinent to This Discussion:

“Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes- promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit- come alive.”
Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 17

“Scripture is the unique and irreplaceable witness to the liberating and reconciling activity of God in the history of Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Scripture serves the purpose of relating us to God and transforming our life.”
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 44

“It must not speak and think in the manner of a timeless Church discipline, but with full participation in the energies and hopes, the cares and struggles of the Church of its own age.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 805

“Hence dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 16